Santa trackers gear up for holiday,NORAD flips on radar to monitor jolly elf's travels.

CAPE CANAVERAL -- Grownups and kids can easily track the travels of the legendary Santa Claus this weekend thanks to a mistaken Sears Roebuck & Co. ad published 50 years ago.

That was the first year the military geared up to provide updates on the Christmas Eve whereabouts of Santa's fabled sleigh and reindeer.

Why did they do it? A wrong number. In 1955, Sears stores advertised a telephone number that children could call for updates on Santa's progress. The company listed the wrong number. The kids who dialed instead reached the commander of the Continental Air Defense Command.

Col. Harry Shoup, the CONAD commander, didn't bark "wrong number" and hang up. Instead, he ordered radar trackers to see if there was any sign of Santa. According to CONAD's published history, trackers picked up something and Shoup relayed updates to any kids who called in.

A few years later, the United States and Canada decided to merge their air defense systems into what's now called the North American Air Defense Command or NORAD for short. NORAD has kept up the tradition ever since, bringing to bear five decades of technological advancements.

The end result of leveraging all of that technology is that it's getting easier, and more interesting, to catch up with Santa Claus on Christmas Eve as kids head off to bed.

What were once static updates delivered to radio and television hosts who relayed them periodically during newscasts on Christmas Eve are now dynamic, always-on computer applications that just about anyone can get to at several different Internet sites.

The coverage at noradsanta.org begins early in the morning, Eastern time, on Christmas Eve and continues all day and evening.

Viewers will be able to track Santa with maps, data and even video recordings as he makes stops. NORAD officials said the agency's experts are able to find, and follow, Santa using intelligence gathered and recorded from past years.

Maps showing where Santa has been, where he is at the time and where he might be headed next will be on the NORAD Web site.

A separate, simpler global map showing Santa's track also will be online at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. There will be links to both at floridatoday.com throughout the weekend.

And, as is tradition, NASA plans to provide Santa with access to the three-mile long shuttle landing strip should he run into technical trouble or need a break once his Christmas Eve travels bring him across the Atlantic Ocean.

The spaceport is all but empty on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. However, the space agency always leaves the Shuttle Landing Facility open for Santa's use. NASA, however, makes sure to stress that it doesn't cost taxpayers any extra money.

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